York’s emperor heads back to Rome

11 Apr 2013 @ 12.59 pm
| News

The head of Emperor Constantine. Photograph: York Museums Trust
Issued by York Museums Trust

One of York’s most famous Roman objects has gone on show at one of Rome’s most iconic buildings this week.

The marble head of Constantine, which is usually on show at the Yorkshire Museum, has taken pride of place at an exhibition at the Colosseum, Rome’s huge amphitheatre.

The exhibition, Constantino 313AD, marks the 1,700 anniversary of the Edict of Milan which made Christianity lawful for the first time in the Roman world.

Natalie McCaul, curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “It is fantastic that one of York’s most famous Roman objects is now on show in what many see as the iconic Roman landmark. Thousands of visitors will see it which can only be good for raising the profile of York’s Roman history and the city’s importance in telling the story of Emperor Constantine.”

The marble head has been on loan to Milan for the last few months as part of the same exhibition. It marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which saw Constantine I, the emperor controlling the western side of the Roman Empire, and Licinius, who was controlling the Balkans, meet in Milan to agree to not punish those who followed the Christian faith, after centuries of persecution. This inaugurated a period of religious tolerance and great political and cultural innovation.

The York loan will feature alongside more than 200 other objects, including loans from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, the National Gallery of Washington and the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. The exhibition runs from April 10 to September 15 2013.

The marble head will be back on show in York from the end of September 2013.


The York Head of Constantine and his influence on Christianity

This magnificent marble sculpture of Constantine’s head was found in York and may be the earliest portrait of him, perhaps carved shortly after he was proclaimed Emperor. Roughly twice life size, it is from a statue of Constantine which probably stood in a prominent position in the Roman fortress in York.

It was in York, Eboracum in the Roman period, in the year 306, that Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops on the death of his father, the Emperor Constantius, while both were on a military campaign to defeat the Picts.

Constantine’s influence on Christian history arose out of conflict. Inspired, it is said, by a vision of a Christian symbol on the eve of battle at Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 312, when he defeated a persistent usurper, Maxentius, Constantine associated the Christian deity with the victory (while he continued to honour the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus).

Christianity and other religions were thereafter tolerated, not persecuted as hitherto. In due course the Church was given legal rights and large financial settlements.

Constantine built St Peter’s in Rome, at the heart of today’s Vatican City, as well as other churches in the city and in Constantinople, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Legend has it that his mother, Helena (later made a saint) found the True Cross on which Christ died during her visit to Palestine.

In 325 Constantine presided over the first ecumenical council at Nicaea (now Iznik) in Turkey, at which the words of the Nicene Creed, which are still repeated today with little change, were agreed.

When he died in 337, Constantine had ruled for more than 30 years, during which time he reunited the divided Roman Empire, reorganised the army, restored the civil powers of government and the Senate, and created Constantinople as the ‘New Rome’ for the empire on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, now the capital of Turkey, Istanbul.

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